Swamp rockin’ mastermind JJ Grey sat down with Ultra Underground to discuss his tight band, lack of rehearsals, the ever evolving perception of his new/old records, his ‘soulful’ voice, performing at Bluesfest and keeping things from ‘mum and daddy’!
UU: How does it feel to be back at Bluesfest?
JJ: I love it! It’s been way too much time in between, 7 years I think? It was 2008, but hopefully this is the beginning of coming back to Bluesfest and touring Australia as well.
UU: For sure! Are you excited to see anyone play?
JJ: oh yeah, everybody! Charles Bradley, Ruthie Foster, Gary Clark Jr, all these people are friends and I don’t get to see em’ all the time, so sometimes you get to play at festivals and get a sneaky peak and see Jimmy Cliff, Matt Andersen, there’s just tons, tons of great people!
UU: There’s definitely a great line-up!
How do you think your latest release Ol’ Glory compares to the rest of your records?
JJ: you know, that’s a good question. I don’t really know what it sounds like yet, it takes me a long time. I can hear the other records now in retrospect, but it’s sort of like seeing yourself in the mirror, you can do it all your life and still not know what you look like. For me, hearing what I do, it’s like when you go to someone’s house and they get their answering machine and you’ve left a message and you hear your own voice and you’re going “that’s not me!”
So, I don’t really know what it sounds like, ya know? I just let it happen, just shake it up, I let the wind do the work, catch the sails, and I just steer the rudder every now and again.
UU: What’s your favourite track from the record?
JJ: now that’s dependant on the mood! It could be any one of them, but lately I’ve been listening to ‘Brave Lil Fighter’ the most.
UU: What inspired the track?
JJ: a friend of mine made a fatally bad decision, that’s the best way I can say it. He’s no longer here, it was his choice, and it’s about that.
UU: What was the writing process behind the song?
JJ: I just got in my writing studio; I got drums, amps, guitars everything set up. This is at my house, and I just jumped from thing to thing and I just laid down that fall on the floor beat type feel, then I did the guitar riff, and then j just started singing to it. Sometimes I’m not even saying words and then later on I try to figure out ‘what am I saying?’ And I make words out of what I was saying and then after I do it long enough it might start to make sense in some parts and not in others, and then I’ll just work it till it all makes sense to me.
UU: Awesome! Now, it’s not every day that you hear a white guy with such a soulful voice. . . Who inspired that sound?!
JJ: *laughs* thanks! Otis Redding is one of my favourite singers, Toots Hibbert from Toots and the Maytals is great too. My family is mixed somewhat, you know? So I was subjected to all kinds of stuff, all the time! Behind my grandfathers trailer park, he owned a lil’ trailer park in Baldwin Florida, there’s a jook joint called Katie’s Night Limit and the brothers was always there playin’ with something. Whether they were spinning Isley Brother records or doing a cover version of Playing in the Band, I used to hear it all the time. I’d be hanging there as long as my mum and daddy didn’t find out, in the daytime when they’d play on a Saturday afternoon!
I must ask, what’s it like to work with such a tight band?
JJ: oh, I’m the luckiest person alive! You wouldn’t believe we don’t rehearse, ever! I hate rehearsing, to start this tour we rehearsed the new material for 2 days, a couple of hours each day and once everyone knew the part, and remembered what we did in the studio, then we’d just go play, I can’t stand rehearsing, I don’t like to get it too right, I don’t want it to be a routine, I want it to be fresh. Every night the drummer and bass player give me something slightly different, not on purpose, and not everything, some things have a feel we just stay with, other things we just choose where It goes!
UU: Do y’all write any tracks together? I presume not after those statements *laughs*
JJ: no, but we jam at sound checks all the time! As soon as I feel like I run out of ideas, actually it’s not even that! They all live in different places, all over the place. Three of the guys live in Texas, one of the guy’s lives in Colorado, one of the guy’s lives in Jacksonville and one of the guy’s lives in Orlando. So, we’re never around together, they only get together as soon as we start touring. First day of the tour, I fly everybody into one spot and we just start playin’.
UU: Wonderful! This ones a lil’ random but what’re your top 5 favourite records?
JJ: I would say my favourite record of all time is Good To Me it’s Otis Redding live at the Whisky a Go Go 1967, the year I was born. And then I’d have to say Donny Hathaway live, Gold & Platinum – Lynyrd Skynyrd, then Jerry Reed’s greatest hits, which is crazily extensive, then Dirty Deeds by AC/DC.
UU: Hell yes!! I have one final question, what makes you happy?
JJ: sharing an honest moment with the audience, with you, with anybody, just sharing an honest moment where it’s no strings attached and that’s what I like to happen on stage every night. I’m not into routine, I just want to get there and share an honest moment. It doesn’t always happen, sometimes I feel like I stumble a little bit, the day before yesterday, I just got stuck in my head a little bit thinking about things instead of just playing.
UU: It wasn’t noticeable though, I enjoyed it!
JJ: good, good! It wasn’t the whole time it was just in and out, and I don’t like that, I like to be fully committed, immersed, nowhere else, nowhere else but here, right now, that’s it!
UU: Well I have to say you have an enthusiasm on stage; it just makes me smile whenever I’m watching you.
JJ: awesome! I feel that can help the audience.
UU: Yeah, it’s great, everyone’s been loving you!
UU: Well thank you so much for the chat!
JJ: thank you, thank you!
Peace, love and keep singin’ the Blues,